Monday,23 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1224, (4 - 10 December 2014)
Monday,23 July, 2018
Issue 1224, (4 - 10 December 2014)

Ahram Weekly

I found a river

Rania Khallaf washes her eyes in the fresh water of art’s spring

I found a river
I found a river
Al-Ahram Weekly

Last week Al-Ahram’s first Salon for Visual Arts, held at the newspaper’s headquarters on Al-Galaa Street from 10 to 30 November, featured a unique event, proposed by this writer and beautifully organised by executive editor of Al-Beit magazine Sawsan Mourad: live portrait painting by the master Wagih Yassa. The news had spread on social media and Al-Ahram’s daily portals a week ahead, and on Monday art lovers hastened to participate.

It was a rainy day, and the roads were jammed because of mud puddles, but the the audience still arrived in droves. The gorgeous setting consisted of a red chair for the master and an elegant white chair for the model be portrayed while, at the back, a few elegant stools and benches were dispersed.

The audience sat in awed silence as Yassa began to paint Mourad. Having set the outline in faint brown oil colours, Yassa started to capture the main features of his beautiful model. He said little about the art of portraiture, or his unique approach to it. As one of a handful of portrait masters in the world, he rather gave a joyful performance.

During the short breaks, he was surrounded by art lovers commenting on it, and expressing their appreciation of his unique style. It was the second public portrait painting session by Yassa in public; the first took place two weeks ago at the Art Corner Gallery, going on for the duration of his latest exhibition. Although Yassa paints newcomers as well as friends on a weekly basis in his studio in Rehab, this was the first time he has done it in public; the tradition is unique and rarely takes place.

“It actually feels great, meeting with a new audience keen on watching the artistic process of portraiture,” he said. “It is a challenging experience for the artist, and a good chance for the audience’s eyes to feast.”
The expression was strangely apt: watching the colours merge and come to life on the surface of the canvas is a celebration of life. The three-hour event was accompanied by an beautiful recital by singer and oud player Hany El-Gizawy, who chanted classical songs by Um Kolthoum, Abdel Halim Hafez and others.

His warm voice heightened the joyful spirit of the evening, creating a remarkable sense of balance.

Yassa, who divides the year between Egypt and Canada, is a member of the Canadian Portrait Society,and the Watercolors Society in Canada. He is also a member of Toronto’s Board of Art Education, and has been chosen as a commissar for many institutions. Over his rich career, Yassa has worked as an illustrator for many magazines in Egypt, Canada and the USA, co-presenting art shows on Canadian TV featuring illustrations of special watercolour technique. His last exhibition, concluded last week at the Art Corner Gallery, was evocatively entitled “I Found a River”.


The poetic title points to the beauty of the exhibits. Even before you enter the gallery, two huge paintings greet the visitor: Mevlevi dancers, and a loving mother. The opening was buzzing with media people, artists, critics and art lovers. Although the gallery is relatively small, the 33 paintings on the walls turned it into a many-splendoured landscape. Facing the visitor in the outer room is one of the most poetic paintings: The Violin Player; it spurts out of spots of yellow and green, focusing on this intimate relationship between the player and his instrument, the attachment they feel for each other, the warmth they enjoy in each other’s company.

“It is one of the paintings that represent peaceful coexistence between my old and new trends, between impressionism and abstraction,” Yassa commented, for a wind of change had blown through the artist’s world. Abstract paintings were certainly the hero of this exhibition; hence, indeed, the title: the river Yassa found is the new field of abstraction, a stop on his continuous journey through the world of art. It is not, however, as abrupt a change in his method as an impressionist as it might seem.

“Abstraction,” he says, “has always been there, but it was coming out slowly and shyly. Abstraction is the artist’s unique vision of the details, contrast, and harmony of the painting’s components. So you can’t say that this is a change,” he smiles, “it is just a development. Anyway, change in the artist’s approach is inevitable, I am not surprised for that. Actually, I would have been surprised if change never happened.”

I look up: a beautiful painting made up of spots of colour, no figures can be discerned. But alongside it are two paintings with souks and alleyways reflecting Yassa’s love of popular Cairo. But abstraction has extended to people painting. In the portrait of a woman on a high chair, the facial features are nearly disguised behind long strokes that stretch down to her body. Another portrait reveals the face of a young girl, her small body attacked by a swirl of colorful lines, blue the most, as if she is flying in the sky; her face is almost cloaked, and her sad look is in harmony with the background.

Two small, abstract nudes lead you gently to the next room. Another magnificent landmark in Yassa’s new landscape is revealed in his 50x70 watercolor masterpiece, revealing the face of an ox on which the hazy body of a nude woman is gently mounted. It is not easy for the eye to collect the features of the nude, which makes the painting an exciting piece. There is something hidden here, a mute sexual scream or a yearning to break the rules.

“This particular painting represents the new wave that flooded me. It is, however, the first painting revealing this highly expressive mood. I hope this river inside me yields more of this.” Other paintings reveal the artist’s love of nature: a crab running away from an unseen force, two cows in secret dialogue, a stray horse in the forest looking at you as if you disturbed his private world. All reveal a strong yearning for abstraction. As in a heightened form of impressionism, the small features are disguised, making the viewer’s imagination glow. “They are just scenes that I encounter during my stay in my farm in Toronto.

They haunt me, and they grant me endless freedom and a vast opportunity to experiment on the free play of colour.”

Bright colours prevail, granting additional cheer to the already festive mood of the exhibition. “The colour, not the subject, is the hero in my new paintings,” Yassa said in a short interview at his studio in Rehab. “I don’t know why I choose bright colors, they just come. All my paintings are mere sketches. Whether oil or watercolour, they are mostly completed in one session. This is due to my long career in doing watercolour sketches.” And, indeed, this could be why you stand before a Yassa paintings for a long time, trying to figure out the secret behind the beauty that emanates from it.

It is the splash of the moment, the freshness, the power of the pulse, reflected instantaneously on the surface of the canvas. But what next? “I don’t have a clue,” Yassa says. “I might continue for years in such a ‘coexistence’ period, and I might go for the extreme in abstract,” he beams. As an established watercolourist, and one of the few visual artists who excel in the art of portraiture, Yassa says, “What I aspire to is painting watercolour portraits, showing the spirit of the model; painting the model in a more abstract way. I’m sure it will happen spontaneously,” he concluded, “with less effort as such, but a greater dose of freedom.”

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